This question pops up now and again in creative writing workshops because knowing what the main character is striving to achieve and why is the backbone of any good story. Superman presents a conundrum: why does this superhuman alien while away his days trying to fix our mess? Two answers are always given to this question:
- To fight for truth, justice and the American way.
- Lois Lane.
These answers are both wrong.
The crime genre aficionados amongst you know that every detective from Wilkie Collins’Sergeant Cuff in ‘Moonstone’ to Sally Wainwright’s Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ is fighting for truth and justice (let’s assume ‘the American way’ is to endorse robust democracy and the rule of law so is synonymous with the first two). Whether they do it with a razor sharp intellect like Sherlock Holmes or a dogged tenacity like Columbo they are all trying to catch the bad guys to see them punished for their crimes – just like Superman. But, and you don’t need to be an aficionado to know this, at some point in any good detective story the crime will become personal. Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade will all, at some point, stake their reputations, their relationships and even their lives on getting to the truth and they’ll do it for hubris, love and occasionally the greater good – but whatever their reason they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Which is where, we assume, Lois Lane enters the fray.
In his infamous, unproduced, screenplay ‘Superman Lives’ Kevin Smith sums up Superman’s take on their relationship like this: “Yes, I do it all for the multitude. But when I save lives, or fight for the weak, I’m saving one life, fighting for one person – again, and again, and again. It’s her, don’t you see? She represents all of them – their hopes, their fragility, their passion. And if ever I feel like no matter how much I do, it’s not enough, I think of Lois. And then I’m off, faster than a speeding bullet…”
So really the two answers are one: Superman’s motivation is to fight for truth, justice and the American way because of Lois Lane. But there’s an unfulfilling myopia to this answer that’s borderline racist: we’re an indistinguishable mass to Superman. And it begs the question: if Superman had never met Lois Lane and he came across a child standing in the street with a car hurtling towards it would he let the child die? Of course he wouldn’t – he’s Superman.
In my opinion the puzzle as to what is Superman’s motivation has only been successfully solved once: in 1978 in a story by Mario Puzo, in a screenplay re-written by Tom Mankiewicz, in a film directed by Richard Donner.
Standing over Jonathan Kent’s grave, his arm around his mother, the rolling Kansas countryside bathed in afternoon sunlight around them, a young Clark Kent utters these words:“All of those things I can do, all those powers and I couldn’t even save him.” From that moment until the end of the film his motivation is clear and simple: on the day he first meets Lois he stops a bullet that would have killed her, he catches her when she falls out of a helicopter, he saves Air Force One when an engine is destroyed by lightening, he stops armed robbers and he catches a thief who falls off a building. Superman is doing for others what he couldn’t do for his father: he is stopping death.
But it isn’t enough to cheat death; he must defeat death and this is where Lex Luther comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the antagonist of a story must be the equal to or stronger than the protagonist. Lex Luther is not the antagonist because he will never be stronger than Superman…but he can align himself with something that is: before we know anything about Lex’s fiendish scheme we learn that it involves killing a lot of people – death is coming, in a big way. As the story develops Lex (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) taunts Superman that no matter how hard he tries he will not save everyone. And, it transpires, Lex is right: alone on a dirt road, Lois’ car gets wedged into a crevice and she is buried alive. Death has won. In a moment of pure rage, Superman defies his father, Jor-El’s edict that he should never interfere with human history and he turns back time. He brings Lois Lane back from the dead.
So the answer to the question what is Superman’s motivation?
Superman’s motivation is to defeat the only force in the universe that is stronger than he is: death.
In 1978 Superman won round one. I’m still waiting for round two.
(this post is about the cinematic interpretations of Superman and does not refer to the comics or the television series ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ although comments and thoughts about these are welcome.)